A CHRISTMAS CARD OF MEMORIES
I was built to play Santa Claus, from my pot belly, beard and pipe to my love of everything about Christmas.
So I've played Santa many times over several decades, even though I've never looked quite as merry as the Santa in the iconic image that Coco-Cola first made famous in its ads of long ago.
It allowed me to continue to live in that enchanted Christmas world of great expectations and greater nostalgia long after I should have been just another cynical newspaper guy.
It's the nicest part of the year. Even brats are almost tolerable. How can you beat Silent Night, angels, a baby, Twas-the-night-before poetry, camels, wise men, stars, the eternal story...and Santa too?
I treasure the happy memories. I was a clown in the Eaton's Santa Claus parade, a yearning visitor to the vanished department store's famous Toyland and faithful listener to its radio broadcast, and I stood in the smelly halls with the rest of the school and sang along with the broadcast of carols from shoppers on the first floor of Simpsons.
But nothing matches my years as Santa.
I always took being his doppleganger seriously, thinking that if I was to screw up the charming illusion for some child, I would be punished by such torture as a year of reading Toronto Star editorials.
I can't pretend it has always gone smoothly.
Friends asked me to play Santa for their little girl without a future. Mary had not yet made me a great costume so I said it would be safer if I ran across their backyard. Don't have the lights on because the mystique of the legendary figure would be aided by the shadows.
I was in mid-flight when an older brother turned on all the lights, which so startled me that I blundered into a small tree and a branch knocked off my glasses and poked me in one eye.
I fished through the snow for my glasses, which I really needed, and finally figured out from the lack of blood and innards that my eye had not been damaged. I croaked out a feeble "ho ho ho," bit back a curse and disappeared into the night.
Next stop was a curve of a suburban street that looked like a Christmas card. An anxious tot waited in the picture window with her parents. It was a command performance where I knew my friends would be caustic if I screwed up.
So there I was at 6.15 pm. on Christmas Eve walking down the street loudly ringing a bell and boisterously yelling "ho ho ho" when a cruiser with two young cops pulled up and asked what I was doing.
I leaned in the passenger window and bellowed "fuck off."
From the watching window, an older sister squealed in mock horror to the tot that "the cops have just busted your Santa." The dad, a university dean whose father had been a beat cop in Edmonton, reassured the tot, saying it was obvious to most of Etobicoke that Santa had just told the police where to go.
I related the anecdote in my Boxing Day column, prompting the police chief to call and say I just had to have made up the story because he doubted he had two cops, even raw rookies, that could be that stupid.
In the young days of the Sun, I prompted the publisher, Doug Creighton, and our marvellous promotion wiz, Linda Ruddy, to organize a carol sing at the Ex. There was a carillon there, not used much, but I found someone who could play those bells, and we publicized it as a readers' event for singing and hot chocolate and candy canes and Santa.
I arrived at the carillon on a stage coach so small that I couldn't fit inside with the bags of candy. So the ponies delivered me riding on top. Unfortunate, there were large decorative balls at the corners of the roof, so when I jumped off, I "grounded" my groin on one, meaning I couldn't utter even one "ho" for minutes.
I then staggered up between the hundreds of carollers to be confronted by Norm Betts, an ace Sun photog, who yelled that he had to get back to the office with a picture for Page One right away. He grabbed the nearest kid and thrust him into my arms.
Unfortunately, it was my youngest son, Mark, then 4. I figured Sunday Sun readers wouldn't exactly be thrilled by Santa holding his own kid on Page 1 in glorious Betts colour, so I told Betts we needed another child.
"This one's fine," Betts said. I shoved Mark away, causing him, naturally, to feel teary at being rejected so vigorously. And I grabbed another boy, whose father turned out to be a pain in the ass.
Mary and I finally managed to soothe Mark after the event when we headed home with hundreds of left-over candy canes. Mark's brothers went to school for weeks armed with enough candy to rot the teeth of entire classes.
It was always more difficult to play Santa for family and friends since older kids who knew me are already hunting for inconsistencies because of their doubts. One family Christmas out in the country, I got tired tugging on the costume in a barn so I didn't bother changing my distinctive boots. I didn't even manage to make one pass sauntering by the house before a nephew said "that's Uncle John because he has those snow boots."
I learned the hard way not to get too cute with the kids. I was performing at a Sun staff Christmas party when I noticed that the next child coming to my lap had been launched by our Queen's Park columnist.
"So here's a Blizzard," I said and scooped the tot up. He returned to his mother and informed her that "Santa must work with you because he knew my name."
I liked kids with long shopping lists and not the little indoctrinated girl who wished for "world peace." I liked kids who got so awestruck they didn't know what to say. In fact, there is something mystical about the little child who still believes. If only more did.
I played Santa at Queen's Park in the middle of the Tory reign. Naturally I wore a blue Santa suit because I said that everyone knew that it was the Conservatives who brought the goodies.
I gave the Lieut Gov. a rubber bill because I said that everyone knew that under the Tories, pensioners really had to make a dollar stretch. One opposition leader was given a hunting knife so he could protect himself from his own caucus. Bill Davis, not yet recognized as one of our best premiers, and various ministers, were given assorted rude gifts dreamed up by the most malicious members of the Queen's Park Press Gallery.
At the party afterwards, a midget-sized Tory backbencher came up to a group of reporters that included me without the Claus costume and asked them to point out Downing because he had been such a rude jerk about the Tories as Santa that he was going to beat the crap out of him. "That's what we do up north," he said.
I assured this partisan bantam rooster that Downing didn't seem to be around anymore but not to worry too much about him because everyone knew he was a jerk.
And we all laughed as the drunken MPP wandered off on his vain search, not realizing that Santa can't be thrashed because he comes armoured with the wonder and fantasies of generations of children who have made him one of the great legends in a world that has never needed his message more of peace and good will and kindness for at least one miraculous night of the year.
The strangest setting for my Santa impersonation was a Cuban resort where after staff and guests kept calling me Santa as I walked the beach with rum in hand, because of my size and my beard bleached whiter than normal by the sun, the management rented a Santa suit and made me part of the evening entertainment.
It was going to be a lot of fun, I thought, and it was until the next few days when I noticed pint-sized figures scoping me out suspiciously at the swim-up bar and at meal time. So I acted as prim and proper as I could be at a Caribbean resort, not wanting to send some kids home with a nice myth exploded.
As I've learned, parents can be nastier than the kids if you screw up any part of the act, from the
"ho ho hos" to not dropping a squirming wet infant.
I confess as a back-sliding Baptist that I still love the Biblical Christmas, the Christ Mass that started it all, cherish the carols after years in a choir, and can still recite everything about the birth story, but to me there is also a giant part of the holiday that has nothing to do with Christianity.
Santa is part of the commercialization, the secularization of Christmas, that I welcome because it allows everyone to celebrate without getting their knickers in a twist on the grounds of religion.
The two warm halves of Christmas can exist without this contrived nonsense about saying "season's greetings" instead, and concerts devoid of Christmas, and the elevation of the minor festival of Hanukkah to please our Jewish friends, and the contrived Kwanzaa invented to publicize black culture that is more an activist propaganda message than a celebration.
When aided by Sun readers I sponsored 43 "boat people" into Canada and then looked after many of them for a year, I kept religion out of it. No mention of church or Christmas to the men and women and kids who had grown up without any form of worship except honouring ancestors. Christ was just as unknown to these immigrants as Santa. They were still adapting to their first snow.
Then I came to one of the houses I rented for them and found a decorated Christmas tree and the kids happily going off to Christmas concerts at a church and their school. They loved everything about the commercial Christmas that too many love to pontificate against. Their modest east-end community had embraced them and folded them into the Christmas merrymaking which helped ease every single one of them into their lives as successful Canadians.
Another gift from Santa!